Any long-term solution to ending the Iranian nuclear program will have to include limits to other national programs to enrich uranium, including that in Brazil. No nation will willing agree to a policy it sees as discriminatory; there will have to be one standard acceptable to all nations. This will not be easy. To better understand the Brazilian perspective, we present a brief history of that nation’s nuclear program, adapted from our proliferation atlas, Deadly Arsenals
The Brazilian armed forces pursued an unsafeguarded nuclear development program during the 1970s to early 1990s, which aroused suspicions at home and abroad that the military aimed to produce nuclear weapons. Although the effort included activities of serious proliferation concern—especially the Navy’s development of uranium enrichment technology, and the Air Force’s construction of an apparent nuclear explosive test site—domestic and international pressures helped isolate the narrow faction advocating development of a “Brazilian bomb.” The available evidence does not indicate that Brazil had a program dedicated to nuclear weapons production, like those of Israel, Iraq, or South Africa.
Instead, there was governmental and military consensus only to develop the technological capacity for the option to build atomic weapons, and that even this goal was justified within the military as a “peaceful nuclear explosive” or PNE project. The military’s programmatic efforts were driven as much or more strongly, however, by non-weapons objectives, specifically to develop submarine propulsion and generally to boost Brazil’s international standing and reach technological autonomy though mastery of nuclear energy.
Brazilian military interest in sensitive nuclear technology first became evident in 1953, when National Research Council director, Admiral Álvaro Alberto, went to West Germany to buy experimental ultracentrifuges. The United States blocked the centrifuge deal at the time. However, Brazil signed nuclear cooperation agreements with the United States in 1955, which led in 1957 to Brazil’s Comissão Nacional de Energia Nuclear (CNEN) commissioning its first U.S.-supplied research reactor.
In the early 1960s, Brazil opened negotiations with France for a natural uranium-fueled power reactor, but these were dropped in 1964. It eventually acquired its first power plant (Angra 1) under a nuclear cooperation agreement signed with the United States in 1965. Brazil ordered this light-water reactor, supplied by the U.S. company Westinghouse, in 1971. Four years later, West Germany agreed to provide Brazil with ten nuclear power plants and the facilities for a complete nuclear fuel cycle, subject to IAEA safeguards. After 15 years, however, Brazil’s civilian nuclear sector had little to show for its cooperation with West Germany apart from an unfinished reactor and an unsuccessful uranium enrichment program based on the jet nozzle method. During that same period, however, the Brazilian military was engaged in a parallel program to acquire a nuclear weapons capability.
This secret program, reportedly code-named the Solimões Project, started while Brazil was under military rule. It allegedly included research on nuclear weapons design and excavation of a 300-meter-deep shaft for under-ground nuclear explosive tests at a military base near Cachimbo in the Amazon jungle. Three different methods to produce weapons-grade fissile material were pursued. Each branch of the military had its own approach, with none subject to IAEA safeguards. The Navy, in cooperation with the Institute for Energy and Nuclear Research (IPEN), developed ultracentrifuges for uranium enrichment. The Army chose graphite reactors suitable for plutonium production, and the Air Force undertook research on laser enrichment of uranium, and reportedly on nuclear weapons design and construction of a nuclear test site. However, only the Navy/IPEN project succeeded, and the Navy ultimately dominated the armed forces’ “parallel” program. Its installations included a laboratory-scale uranium centrifuge plant at IPEN in São Paulo, as well as the initial module of an industrial-scale plant at the Navy's Aramar Research Center in Iperó. These could have been used to produce uranium enriched to the level needed for nuclear arms, but neither plant is believed to have produced such material.
In a remarkable turnabout in 1990, Brazil renounced its secret program and began a series of steps toward binding non-proliferation commitments. On September 17, 1990, then-President Fernando Collor de Mello closed the Cachimbo test site. He emphasized his decision to end Brazil's nuclear weapons option program by throwing two shovels of lime into the test shaft, to symbolically “bury” the program. A week later he announced at the United Nations that Brazil was rejecting ''the idea of any test that implies nuclear explosions, even for peaceful ends,” the first time that a Brazilian president had ever renounced PNEs. Brazil subsequently declared its intention to produce only low-enriched uranium, which is not readily suitable for weapons. Aramar director Admiral Othon Pinheiro da Silva declared in March 1993 that his center would not enrich uranium above 20 percent “because of a political decision”.
A significant milestone on the non-proliferation path came on May 30, 1994, when Brazil brought into force the Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in Latin America and the Caribbean (Treaty of Tlatelolco). This included commitments not to acquire, manufacture, test, use, or permit the stationing of nuclear weapons or any nuclear explosive device on its territory, and to accept IAEA inspection of all its nuclear activities. Brazil became a member of the Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1998.
Still, several decades of nuclear development, much of it through parallel civil and military programs has resulted in an impressive array of facilities covering the entire nuclear fuel cycle. Some of these, in particular, Brazil’s uranium enrichment facilities, may still have the technical potential to produce weapons-grade material. Some activities by the military, notably the Army’s effort to resurrect a research reactor project uncovered in June 1997, and the Navy’s resumption of its nuclear-powered submarine program in January 2000, indicate that some in the military harbor nuclear ambitions that warrant continued attention. Recent statements by Brazilian political leaders have also raised concerns. However, Brazil has unequivocally committed itself to the peaceful development of nuclear energy and it appears unlikely that it will reverse this stance in the immediate future.
This analysis benefited greatly from the doctoral research of Michael Barletta, now with the International Atomic Energy Agency.